Deception, or Just Bending the Rules?

While casually browsing through a magazine, this ad from Dove caught my attention:


Now let’s play a little game. Can you spot the two asterisks in the text above? How about the fine print that these asterisks are referring to? Look closely; they’re hard to spot.  This can be a tricky business.  A reader whose attention is not focused or who has not expended the effort to engage their mental faculties might miss them altogether. If you couldn’t see them, I don’t blame you. The picture quality of this ad isn’t exactly ideal, and even when staring at the original advertisement, it took me a moment to find them.  The caption at the bottom reads: “This test paper shows how Dove is different. After a few minutes, soap strips the paper similar to how it strips your skin’s moisture*. With ¼ moisturizing cream, Dove doesn’t strip your skin like soap can.” The fine print being referenced is vertically typed at the bottom left corner of the advertisement. It reads, “over time with regular use.” After reading the fine print, I began to wonder whether there were elements of deception in this ad, or if I was just being hyper vigilant. I decided to investigate further.

First of all, let me share exactly what my problem is with this ad and its fine print. The predominant text in this ad reads, “soap can strip the skin’s moisture*” and “after a few minutes, soap strips the paper similar to how it strips your skin’s moisture*.” It seems to me as though this ad is implying that this effect of moisture stripping is almost instantaneous (for both the paper and your skin). Then when I read the fine print (“over time with regular use”) my perspective completely changed. The second asterisked sentence above begins by stating: after a few minutes. Was I the only one who didn’t realize that this time frame only applies to the first part of the sentence? Also, who knows what is meant by over time with regular use? They certainly don’t specify. Does over time mean a week? A month? A year? How about regular use? Does that mean once a week? Once a day? Twice a day? Based on the evidence presented in the ad alone, it doesn’t seem as though this ad is drawing off of scientific evidence. So where is this data coming from?

I decided to conduct my own informal survey in order to discover whether I was the only one who thought this ad was deceptive. I randomly selected 10 people (out of a group of coworkers, friends and family) and showed them this ad. I asked these participants to pay close attention to the asterisked information. After they were done reading, I asked whether they found this ad deceptive; 4 out of 10 said yes. This was not the overwhelming support that I had hoped for, but at least a small portion of people agreed with me.

If I had to specify exactly which clause of Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) this ad contravenes, I would say Clause 1 Accuracy and Clarity:

(a) Advertisements must not contain inaccurate, deceptive or otherwise misleading claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to any identified or identifiable product(s) or service(s).

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible.

In this case, the issues with this ad seem to be fairly subjective, so it is unlikely that it would be withdrawn from circulation. Either way, it is an excellent practice to look out for deceptive advertising.

Another thing to watch out for is the feeling of truthiness. Truthiness is a feeling you get, rather than a rational conclusion you draw based on ample evidence that you have carefully processed. If you don’t devote enough time to examine this ad, you might see it and think, “Oh, this looks like results from a scientific experiment that shows that Dove is better. Next time I go to buy soap, I’ll pick up some Dove.” But really this is just a feeling based on the appearance of impressive evidence in the ad. It doesn’t actually say anything about scientific evidence, or something being scientifically proven. Additionally, in this brief glance in which the feeling of truthiness is accepted, the asterisks might have been overlooked, and therefore a chunk of information is missing. Whether the deception is subtle or blatantly obvious, your mind can be fooled, especially if you are not paying attention and rationally processing all of the information you are presented with.


Chatelaine (March 2013)


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